Saturday, 22 November 2008

Eyes at tea-time

Now the night comes in so early, making a cup of tea at 5 involves walking by torchlight across the croft from the studio to the caravan and back. The studio is wood-stove snuggly, but today it has barely edged above freezing outside and last night's fall of hail and snow hasn't melted at all.

The caravan is at ambient temperature, so I keep my coat and gloves on to fill the kettle and as it boils the steam billows like an old locomotive chimney. I stew the tea in the pot then pour it into a thermos flask and head back to the studio. I realise some people would find this lifestyle uncomfortable, but it has its magic.

On the way to the caravan, something rustled in the rushes close to the path and scampered away. I swept arcs with my torch until I hooked a pair of glints, a pair of eyes reflecting the light. They seemed low to the ground but I couldn't tell at that distance what was looking back at me through the vegetation. I murmured to it and it held my gaze. I swang the beam around and picked out two more pairs of twinkles, then walked on.

On the way back to the studio, I hear another scuffle near to the old ruin and the swish of animals moving through long heather. I scan with the beam. Two eyes gleam. It's three roe deer, right there, two with their white rumps catching the light and the other one looking straight at me. The other two deer turn their heads and, for a moment, six little dishes of light shine in the dark. Then three reflective rumps mark their bouncing path as they bound away over the brae and into the lochside woods.

Back at the studio, I strip off the warm gear and sit down to a nice cup of Darjeeling, knowing just why I don't miss the convenience of being able simply to hit a switch in the kitchen when I want a cup of tea.

Monday, 17 November 2008

On rawness

Winter arrived suddenly with a week of gales, a clatter of hail and a half-serious fall of snow. We retreated from the caravan at the shore to the shed in the woods. Then just as suddenly it backed off again, allowing us a couple more weeks of autumn, so we packed up and headed back down to the lochside for a few starry nights and a chance for a bonfire. Shoals of birch leaves rafted in and moored among the bladderwrack. The aspens fluttered their money-leaves for a few more days.

Now winter is back, the days are short and it's raw. Raw. 'Of weather: harshly cold and damp', the dictionary puts it. Harshly cold means just a few degrees above freezing, maybe 5 during the day, dropping to 1 or 2 at night. And damp? Well, after several days of torrential rain, damp seems an ludicrous understatement. This kind of wet cold feels much colder than a dry freeze; it is something about the way the air is saturated that draws any warmth from exposed skin. Plus there's the wind-chill factor: it is blowing due westerly, scouring up the loch from the sea at a steady force 5, gusting strongly enough to lash the rain inside the hood of your coat. Everything's chilly and wet to touch. There is no evaporation at all: nothing dries, the caravan windows are permanently steamed up and condensation pours and pours. The paths get soggier each day, like wet sponges, their peaty basis turning to the consistency of porridge. We squodge back and forth across the croft in wellies and full waterproofs, stripping down to come into the studio, or a shed, or caravan, leaving dripping rain gear to puddle outside, with no hope of it drying.

Having been told by a Siberian that there is no such thing as bad weather, only inappropriate clothing, I have learned to focus my loathing onto the most egregious corners of my failing garments. I restrict my feelings about these weather conditions to hating the wet cuffs on my jacket and I occupy myself by imagining how a different design might miraculously wick this moisture away.

But the good thing about such a serious bout of dreich weather is that I'm driven indoors long enough to get round to this. If it goes on much longer, I might even manage my tax form. Now there's something that really will feel raw.

Tuesday, 1 July 2008

In praise of SPONG

SPONG is the name of a device I found in a charity shop. It's a mincer that screws onto the table in the caravan. It's ancient, simple, robust and highly effective. You feed stuff into the vessel and wind the handle, which turns an Archimedes screw, forcing the stuff through a couple of metal discs with holes in, reducing it to mash. It has revolutionised my life. No more of the agony of trying to grind chickpeas in a mouli or herbs in a parsmint. These two tools have served my mashing needs for the past nine years, since living without electricity, but both the mouli and parsmint are plastic, bijou, feeble affairs, which leave me aching and cross after endeavouring to squish any serious volume of stuff. At this time of year, my garden is producing mint by the sackful. A parsmint just is not powerful enough. Now, with SPONG, mint sauce is just a few handle-turns away.

Thursday, 10 April 2008


The first geese flew over today, heading north for summer feeding and breeding. It feels as if it might really be spring. I love the song of the skein - honking and bantering with each other - and the way their formation makes letters of some runic alphabet, spelling out what? Blessings? A story? A joke? Does each skein have their own routine? Do they write the same text on the sky every year?

That sheep is back. Grrr...

Sunday, 6 April 2008


I got back after a few days away yesterday to find a sheep on the croft. The give away signs were the stench and paths strewn with dung. Sheep are not welcome here, despite their conventional association with crofting life. Apart from the fact that they are smelly and stupid, they are a disaster when it comes to trying to grow trees as they eat anything they can get their ugly little teeth around. Because regenerating the woods is our aim for the land, sheep are banned. Most of the time the stock fence around the croft is adequate to keep them out, but at this time of year the grass grows better on this side of the fence, under the shelter of trees, largely ungrazed by hairy herbivores. The temptation is such that in spring we regularly have sheep breaking and entering, eyeing up vulnerable fence posts and squeezing their fat haunches between the wires.

We chased her around, up and down the path, out onto the rocky knoll, back down into the bog, across a marshy bit into the woods and then, finally, she tried to make a break past me between the ruin and a sheer drop. I tackled her as she went past and managed to hang on, with two hands in her fleece, to shouts of approval and jokes about the All Blacks.

Once caught, the ewe appeared to give up all resistance. We tied a bit of twine around her neck and front leg and tried to lead her out down the path to the gate. She was having none of it. She sat down. You can't drag a sheep with a bit of string and she was not going to co-operate. I fetched the wheelbarrow. We turned her onto her back, picked her up by her legs and heaved her into the barrow. She rolled her eyes and acted like a lamb in a doll's pram. I pushed her off the croft, trying not to look too closely at her tick-infested belly, and tipped her rather unceremoniously out of the barrow onto the road on the other side of the fence. She sat there, with that dumb sheep glaze on her face that has a great Scots word for it, invented for sheep and these days applied more often to drunks - glaikit. We said goodbye and she picked herself up onto her hoofs and trotted off up the brae to find her mates, or so we thought.

How foolish we were. This morning, setting off for a bumble in the woods, there she was, nibbling away on the path beside the ruin again. We have a well-rehearsed routine for this, I cut round the knoll to open the gate, staying out of eyeshot while the sheep is herded gently down the path. All was going swimmingly until I spooked her near to the gate and she sprinted off into the woods. Another chase began. It's not as if it was a nice spring morning. The snow was lying and the ground beneath it was soggy, slippery and, when you make a dive for a sheep, cold on the knees. The sheep duly submitted once again to our athletic prowess and was, once again, wheelbarrowed off the premises. No way were we letting her loose, though. This time she was tipped into the boot of the car and driven 5 miles up the road to her home township, precise location to remain secret, where we bundled her out of the back, untied her and left her to tell the other woolly maggots about her alien abduction experience.

Tuesday, 25 March 2008

Last trip in Ripples

The wee boat's gunwhales are disintegrating, she has a hole in the thwart, and her benches are rotten. Ripples, as we call her, has just done her final journey. Her years of floating service are over. Early in the morning, at high tide, we swept the snow off the blue wooden benches and launched her for the last time. Her last duty was the tour to the caravan to pick up an empty calor gas bottle, up to the bridge at the head of the loch where it was swapped for a full one, back to the caravan to drop it off, and then into a crack on the shore where she will sit high and dry as the tides fall away now that the moon is waning again. Once she has dried out a bit, she will be perched up-ended to live out her days as a shelter, a place to go and sit out of the drizzle and contemplate ripples on the loch. It was sunny as we rowed her up and down the loch, but as soon as she was abandoned on the shore, a squalling blizzard swept in, like the close of a film, as if taking a boat out onto the loch will never ever be possible again.

Monday, 17 March 2008


Each day for the past week I have been gathering seaweed from the shore of the loch. I have a big back basket that I made about 8 or 9 years ago, with help from a friend, at a weekend workshop in Helmsdale. It's a traditional creel made of hazel and willow, and when I strap it on my back I feel connected to generations of women before me who have trudged back up from the shore with seaweed for the garden. I am always amazed by how many strands of nylon rope and fragments of plastic are tangled up in it. I've now gathered 8 baskets full of bladderwrack - one for each vegetable bed, one to mulch the fruit trees and one to mulch the soft fruit bushes - probably enough for this year.

This morning it was low tide, and there was a film of ice on the weed. I watched it disintegrate in the sun, knowing that each sparkling crystal structure, the fractal coastline-pattern of each tiny window-pane, would last only a few minutes more - even if it survived the sunshine, the creeping tide would soon wash it into invisibility. One long, lingering, melting moment later, the ice was gone.

Monday, 10 March 2008


The pontoons at the harbour are being extended so the big boat, Vigilance, which normally spends the whole winter safely tied up, has spent the last couple of weeks in a precarious position on the shore of the loch. Why not on her summer mooring? Because the running mooring for the little boat, Ripples, has snapped and the broken chain can't be replaced until we get some fine weather. To make matters worse, Ripples' gunwhales are finally giving way so her days of useful service on water are over. The replacement boat, as yet unnamed, is not yet ready for launching. We can't leave Vigilance hanging on a mooring in the middle of the loch with no wee boat to row out to reach her.

So Vigilance is tied up on the shore, enduring the storms. She floats at high tide, and is beached as it goes out. Yesterday, as the water level lowered, she toppled over too fast, onto a sharp stone. Water dripped from the resulting hole. This morning, the pressure was down to 960 and it was two days after new moon - the resulting spring tide was enormous. This, coupled with a south-easterly wind, had tugged one of the ropes free. It is nerve-wracking and I'm just an onlooker, not the one tying the knots and wrestling with tyres and fenders.

The tide's been right out and it's coming back in again now. She'll be floating again soon. How much water is she taking through that hole?

Sunday, 17 February 2008

Hibernation almost over

The normal signal here for end-of-hibernation is the first primrose. The diary over the past eight years shows this to be normally early-to-mid March, and occasionally late February. This year the first primrose was out on December 29th. Did someone say 'climate change?'

Despite what the primroses are doing it has still been determinedly wintry, but the days are lengthening fast now and the trees are jumping with birds. After a raw wet January and a snowy start to February, we have been blessed by a week of dry, bright weather. I have been digging over the ex-raspberry patch, getting the soil ready for (dare I say the word?) spring. Robins chase each other, competing for worms as they turn up on the spade. Early in the morning, they command the tree tops, leaving those long listening pauses between their trills.

The big thrill this week is the installation of a polytunnel. After a last minute change of plan for its site, it will nestle in the shelter of the woods beside the bath and winter bed shed we call 'the lounge'. It's a big job. Carting all the tubes, wood and fittings into position and plotting and staking out the ground took a morning. Then construction could begin. This involved first measuring out and hammering in two lines of five ground tubes. Then the hoops could be made up, complete with their surprisingly complicated complement of bolts and joints. The ridge tube, corner stablisers and cross-bars completed the metalwork. That was yesterday. Today we worked on timber door frames (one for each end) until the drill ran out of battery. I am impatient for completion, but there is still a lot to do: complete the door frames, make doors, dig trenches all around to bury the cover, acquire some suitable flooring. Then we will need a warm, calm day to wrap it in polythene. I can't wait to be Christy.